Sunday, February 23, 2020

Trump v Parasite

I was watching President Donald Trump’s speech last week when, as per Trump’s usual off the cuff rip-from-the-headlines remarks, he brought up the Academy Awards. Ah ha, I thought. And there it was, “And the winner is... a movie from South Korea! What the (expletive) was that all that about? We've got enough problems with South Korea, with trade. On top of that, they give them the best movie of the year. Was it good? I don't know. Let's get 'Gone with the Wind' back, please? 'Sunset Boulevard.' So many great movies.” The studio that made the film, Neon, predictably shot back, “Understandable, he can't read,” a supposed reference to the fact the movie had English subtitles and of course, as per stereotype, Trump is dumb. (Let me tell you how many people I know, even those who supposedly like films, who have trouble with subtitles. I don’t get it, I’ve never had any problem and sometimes think movies with subtitles are better.) But the studio's jokingly defensive response misses the mark. Trump wasn’t criticizing  Parasite (a movie I thought was unexceptional and hardly deserving of Best Picture) per se but a few things generally. Remember: Trump is an Everyman American. Fact is the vast majority of “regular” people (ie., non-cineastes) have never seen Parasite nor know anything about it; the same as Trump. The second is that, indeed, where are the current films made in the great classic American tradition? Trump critics lambasted him for picking Gone with the Wind, which they suggested was racist. Huh? Gone with the Wind is one of the greatest movies of all time and depicts the fall of the Antebellum South and its antiquated and oppressive system of slavery. And Trump also picked Sunset Boulevard - is that racist? If Trump made any slight it was towards the fact Parasite was from South Korea. In my books, I couldn’t care less if the Oscars Best Picture was from South Korea, Madagascar or the good ol' USA, so long as it’s worthy of the award. 


Monday, February 17, 2020

Film clips

Watching Casablanca for the umpteenth time - one of those movies I never get tired of viewing - the other night on TCM, I was struck by just how much this movie embodies it all and therefore why it might be the greatest movie of all time, or at least one of the top five. Let's count the ways.  The Michael Curtiz 1942 classic from an unproduced play has drama and strife (World War II refugee crisis and the Nazis gaining on North Africa), comedy (with numerous comic turns by Claude Rains as Capt. Renault – i.e., “I'm shocked to find out that gambling is going on!”, Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari’s swatting flies at the end of each poker-faced comment, and even Humphrey Bogart’s Rick’s wry “I came to Casablanca for the waters.”) The movie has romance with Rick’s “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Here’s looking at you kid” to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). It has patriotism (the nightclub crowd drowns out the German officers by singing La Marseillaise). It has a terrific score topped by Herman Hupfeld’s As Time Goes By. There are the iconic characters including Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre as Signor Ugart, Dooley Wilson as Sam and S. Z. Sakall as Carl. And, if you want, the movie goes even deeper, portraying Rick as an existential character who looks out only for himself – “I’m the only cause I’m interested in” - until he’s forced to choose. 

Prior to Casablanca that night on TCM, the network showed another Ingrid Bergman classic, Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944). For a reason I still haven’t been able to figure out this old movie has served as the background for one of the most common current political catchwords, “gaslighting.” In the movie, Bergman as Paula is manipulated by her husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) to a point where she is being driven insane. That’s because he keeps denying her perceptions - her truth - until she doesn’t believe herself at all.

I am currently in St. Petersburg, Fla., where last week I caught the Oscar nominated documentary short films (five) as well as the Oscar nominated live action shorts (five). The contrast between the screening of those films here (at the Tampa Theatre) and in Detroit (at the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre) is amazing. In Detroit, viewing the Oscar shorts is a major event and you better come early to get a parking space. Here, you could count the number of people on your fingers in the extraordinary elegant 1920-era Tampa Theatre, with an interior designed like a Mediterranean village.
Finally, February 2 was Groundhog Day. But do you think I could find Groundhog Day, the movie, anywhere? Not on TCM, not on Netflix. This modern comedy classic (1992) by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, deserves to be screened every year, as an alleged holiday film, just like A Charlie Brown Christmas and Easter Parade.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Oscar observations

Well, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won best Oscar pick last night and should I be surprised? Maybe, since many bets, including mine, were on Sam Mendes’s 1917 taking top award. This, after the film – which hardly anyone has seen (with 18 weeks since release its box office is $35 million domestically and ranks 14 compared to Bad Boys for Life at No. 2 and $165 mil. after just four weeks.) But there’s no question it was the critics’ darling. And the Academy so bestowed the award making history as the first foreign language (“International” as the name was changed this year) movie to take the top prize. My viewing of the film left me flat – very flat; seldom have I been so in variance with much critical opinion. And I think the Academy, after years of criticism for its picks being “so white” and not diverse enough, was trying to make up for it. No doubt it was time for an international film breakthrough but, uh, Parasite? (I guess they had no other choice.) Now, let’s see if regular people will go to watch this convoluted comedy-drama……Meanwhile, a brilliant actor can often be the flip side of a bizarre personality, as many of us have long suspected of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix won best actor for his portrayal of the Joker (Todd Phillips). Remember Phoenix’s strange interview, among others, with David Letterman when there was lots of embarrassing dead air and he talked about his career diverging into “hip hop?” This time he warped on about sentient animals: “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal." Remember that, breakfast lovers everywhere!.....RenĂ©e Zellweger (above) gave the best acceptance speech, winning best actress for her performance in Judy (Rupert Goold). Poised, thoughtful, articulate, she not only gave heartfelt praise to a slew of production people but went out of her way to give a nod to ordinary Americans - not something Hollywood types tend to do – praising the military and first responders……Other than Parasite winning best picture, I agreed with pretty much all of the other awards and some were pretty predictable, like Laura Dern as best supporting actress in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari for best film editing, Jay Roach’s Bombshell for best makeup and hairstyling, 1917 for best visual effects, and Parasite for, well  best international feature…..If there was a Marxist-Leninist award it definitely should have gone to Julia Reichart, director of the winning documentary American Factory. Dredging up the hoary old communist slogan, Julia exclaimed: “Workers of the world, unite!” which is straight out of The Communist Manifesto! ….As for red carpet pre-show, lovers of fashion were probably vastly disappointed. Instead of watching the stars (okay, female stars) walk in in their glamorous gowns we got interview after interview with many (male) directors and the occasional spilt screen image of a fashionista.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Taylor Swift: the girl next door

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (Lana Wilson) opened last weekend on Netflix and I promptly caught it. I knew virtually nothing about Taylor Swift. It’s possible I might be able to recognize one of her songs if only through excessive radio play. My reason for watching the doc was because of Swift’s superstar persona. Who, after all, is this cultural icon? For one thing, I learned that Swift, the highest-earing female artist of the past decade with more than 50 million albums sold, comes from a Country and Western background, not Pop. For another, she’s exceedingly hardworking. For a third, her career comes before all else. For years, she seemed to never have a boyfriend and was offended when a TV interviewer, seeing her in a glam dress at an awards show, suggested she wouldn’t be going home alone. She now has a boyfriend but highly protects his identity; there’s a couple of shots in the film with his back to us. The doc follows Swift chronologically from a childhood virtuoso to teen and young adult phenom. Throughout, what we get is a view of someone who comes across as ordinary as you and me. The closest person in her life is her mother, Andrea. Despite her success Swift eschews the phoniness of stardom and tries at all costs not to be caught up in it. You can easily imagine her being your friend and all the showbiz surrounding her as abstract background noise. The last third of the film is about her political coming out. Largely stemming from a sexual assault against her by a disc jockey (she won a civil case), Swift rails against her adopted home state Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn, who voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which seeks to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. From there, Swift aligns herself with the LGBTQ community and against the Trump administration, despite concerns of alienating half her audience. Checking for accuracy I looked it up. Blackburn, a Republican, indeed never took issue with Swift on the vote. But the senator did strike a conciliatory tone, lauding Swift as an “exceptionally gifted” artist and backing her other well-publicized campaign to protect songwriters and musicians from censorship, copyright theft, and profiteering. Hmmm.